Can Problems From Climate Change Be Addressed With Science? ( 173

Slashdot reader bricko shares an article from Scientific American about two "ecomodernists" who argue that the problems of climate change can be addressed through science and technology. In his Breakthrough essay, Steven Pinker spells out a key assumption of ecomodernism. Industrialization "has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled lifespans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children. It has allowed people to read at night, live where they want, stay warm in winter, see the world, and multiply human contact. Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts...."

We can solve problems related to climate change, Pinker argues, "if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology... Since 1970, when the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the United States has slashed its emissions of five air pollutants by almost two-thirds. Over the same period, the population grew by more than 40 percent, and those people drove twice as many miles and became two and a half times richer. Energy use has leveled off, and even carbon dioxide emissions have turned a corner."

The essay also cites ecomodernist Will Boisvert, who believes climate change will be cataclysmic but not apocalyptic, bringing large upheaval but a small impact on human well-being. "Global warming won't wipe us out or even stall our progress, it will just marginally slow ordinary economic development that will still outpace the negative effects of warming and make life steadily better in the future, under every climate scenario.... Our logistic and technical capacities are burgeoning, and they give us ample means of addressing these problems."

Google Open Sources Its Exoplanet-Hunting AI ( 15

dmoberhaus writes: Last December, NASA announced that two new exoplanets had been hiding in plain sight among data from the Kepler space telescope. These two new planets weren't discovered by a human, however. Instead, an exoplanet hunting neural network -- a type of machine learning algorithm loosely modeled after the human brain -- had discovered the planets by finding subtle patterns in the Kepler data that would've been nearly impossible for a human to see. Last Thursday, Christopher Shallue, the lead Google engineer behind the exoplanet AI, announced in a blog post that the company was making the algorithm open source. In other words, anyone can download the code and help hunt for exoplanets in Kepler data.
Google's research blog called the December discovery "a successful proof-of-concept for using machine learning to discover exoplanets, and more generally another example of using machine learning to make meaningful gains in a variety of scientific disciplines (e.g. healthcare, quantum chemistry, and fusion research)."

Researchers Claim They Can Predict Where Lightning Is Likely To Strike ( 35

Long-time Slashdot reader conner_bw shared an article from the CBC: A study by researchers at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering suggests it's possible to predict where lightning will strike and how often.They say satellite data and artificial intelligence can help foresee where lightning poses a greater risk to spark wildfires... "Those events don't just randomly happen," said Dr. Xin Wang, one of three researchers involved in the study. "They also have spatial and temporal patterns."
One of the paper's authors says their analysis can predict areas with a high chance of wildfires with an accuracy greater than 90%.
United States

The Ordinary Engineering Behind the Horrifying Florida Bridge Collapse ( 246

An anonymous reader quotes a report from WIRED: The people of Sweetwater, Florida were supposed to wait until early 2019 for the Florida International University-Sweetwater University City Bridge to open. Instead, they will wait about that long for an official assessment from the National Transportation Safety Board of why it collapsed just five days after its installation, killing at least six people. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many queries have centered on the unconventional technique used to build the bridge, something called Accelerated Bridge Construction, or ABC. But ABC is more complicated than its acronym suggests -- and it's hardly brand new. ABC refers to dozens of construction methods, but at its core, it's about drastically reducing on-site construction time. Mostly, that relies on pre-fabricating things like concrete decks, abutments, walls, barriers, and concrete topped steel girders, and hauling them to the work site. There, cranes or specialized vehicles known as Self-Propelled Modular Transporter install them. A video posted online by Florida International University, which helped fund the bridge connects to its campus, showed an SPMT lifting and then lowering the span into place.

In a now-deleted press release, the university called the "largest pedestrian bridge moved via SPMT in U.S. history," but that doesn't seem to mean much, engineering-wise. SPMTs have been around since the 1970s, and have moved much heavier loads. In 2017, workers used a 600-axle SPMT to salvage the 17,000 ton ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014. The ABC technique is much more expensive than building things in place, but cities and places like FIU like it for a specific reason: Because most of the work happens far away, traffic goes mostly unperturbed. When years- or months-long construction projects can have serious effects on businesses and homes, governments might make up the money in the long run. Workers installed this collapsed span in just a few hours. These accelerated techniques are also much safer for workers, who do most their work well away from active roads.
The report goes on to note that the bridge collapse is still under investigation and the search for a culprit is ongoing. "The answers could run the gamut, from design flaws to fabrication flubs to installation issues," reports WIRED. As of publication, The Washington Post is reporting that an engineer called the state to report cracking two days before its collapse.

Microplastics Found In 93 Percent of Bottled Water Tested In Global Study ( 170

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The bottled water industry is estimated to be worth nearly $200 billion a year, surpassing sugary sodas as the most popular beverage in many countries. But its perceived image of cleanliness and purity is being challenged by a global investigation that found the water tested is often contaminated with tiny particles of plastic. The research was conducted on behalf of Orb Media, a U.S-based non-profit journalism organization with which CBC News has partnered. Professor Sherri Mason, a microplastics researcher who carried out the laboratory work at the State University of New York, and his team tested 259 bottles of water purchased in nine countries (none were bought in Canada). Though many brands are sold internationally, the water source, manufacturing and bottling process for the same brand can differ by country. The 11 brands tested include the world's dominant players -- Nestle Pure Life, Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, San Pellegrino and Gerolsteiner -- as well as major national brands across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Researchers found 93 per cent of all bottles tested contained some sort of microplastic, including polypropylene, polystyrene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Orb found on average there were 10.4 particles of plastic per liter that were 100 microns (0.10 mm) or bigger. This is double the level of microplastics in the tap water tested from more than a dozen countries across five continents, examined in a 2017 study by Orb that looked at similar-sized plastics. Other, smaller particles were also discovered -- 314 of them per liter, on average -- which some of the experts consulted about the Orb study believe are plastics but cannot definitively identify. The amount of particles varied from bottle to bottle: while some contained one, others contained thousands.


No, Space Did Not Permanently Alter 7 Percent of Scott Kelly's DNA ( 49

Several stories this week have proclaimed that the DNA of former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly changed during his year living on the International Space Station. The stories say that 7 percent of his genes did not return back to normal when he came back to Earth. It makes it seem as if the space environment permanently altered his genetic code. The problem? That's not true. From a report: The mistake stems from an inaccurate interpretation of NASA's ongoing Twins Study. When Scott went to space in 2015, his identical twin Mark -- also a former NASA astronaut -- stayed on the ground. The idea was that Mark would serve as a control subject -- a nearly identical genetic copy that NASA could use to figure out how the space environment changed Scott's body. Some fascinating results have come out of the experiment. For one thing, Scott's gut bacteria changed significantly while he was in space. And yes, he did experience genetic changes. The protective caps on the ends of his DNA strands -- known as telomeres -- increased while in space. But space didn't permenantly alter 7 percent of his DNA. [...] NASA also confirmed this in a statement to The Verge: "Scott's DNA did not fundamentally change," a NASA spokesperson said. "What researchers did observe are changes in gene expression, which is how your body reacts to your environment. This likely is within the range for humans under stress, such as mountain climbing or SCUBA diving."

NASA's Planet-Hunting Kepler Space Telescope Is Running Out of Fuel ( 83

Charlie Sobeck, the system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, said in a NASA statement that Kepler is running low on gas. According to Sobekc, it only has "several months" before it reaches the end of the its life. Mashable reports: NASA's Kepler spacecraft has been peering deep into the Milky Way galaxy for nearly a decade. It has spotted over 2,500 confirmed planets orbiting distant stars, and over 2,500 more possible worlds are waiting to be confirmed. Thirty of these confirmed planets live inside their host stars' habitable zones, places where liquid water could exist like it does on Earth. NASA placed the Kepler telescope 94 million miles away from Earth, in an orbit around the sun. This way, Earth's gravity and reflected light don't interfere with Kepler's precise measurements of distant planets. Out there, in the void, it's extremely unlikely that Kepler will become a threatening piece of space junk that could pose collision hazards to other satellites. Although Kepler will soon be spent and left to its long, lonely orbit in space, the spacecraft will soon be replaced by another exoplanet-hunting space telescope, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is set to launch into space on April 16.

Planting GMOs Kills So Many Bugs That It Helps Non-GMO Crops ( 280

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: One of the great purported boons of GMOs is that they allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, some of which are known to be harmful to humans or other species. Bt corn, cotton, and soybeans have been engineered to express insect-killing proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and they have indeed been successful at controlling the crops' respective pests. They even protect the non-Bt versions of the same crop that must be planted in adjacent fields to help limit the evolution of Bt resistance. But new work shows that Bt corn also controls pests in other types of crops planted nearby, specifically vegetables. In doing so, it cuts down on the use of pesticides on these crops, as well.

Entomologists and ecologists compared crop damage and insecticide use in four agricultural mid-Atlantic states: New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Their data came from the years before Bt corn was widespread (1976-1996) and continued after it was adopted (1996-2016). They also looked at the levels of the pests themselves: two different species of moths, commonly known as the European corn borer and corn earworm. They were named as scourges of corn, but their larvae eat a number of different crops, including peppers and green beans. After Bt corn was planted in 1996, the number of moths captured for analysis every night in vegetable fields dropped by 75 percent. The drop was a function of the percentage of Bt corn planted in the area and occurred even though moth populations usually go up with temperature. So the Bt corn more than counteracted the effect of the rising temperatures we've experienced over the quarter century covered by the study.


Daily Dose of Violent Video Games Causes 'No Significant Changes' In Behavior, Study Finds ( 190

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: A new, longer-term study of video game play from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Germany's University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf recently published in Molecular Psychiatry found that adults showed "no significant changes" on a wide variety of behavioral measures after two straight months of daily violent game play. Most scientific studies on the effects of video game violence measure participants right after the completion of a gameplay session, when the adrenaline prompted by the on-screen action is likely still pumping. Researcher Simone Kuhn and her co-authors argue that "effects observed only for a few minutes after short sessions of video gaming are not representative of what society at large is actually interested in, namely how habitual violent video game play affects behavior on a more long-term basis." To correct for the "priming" effects inherent in these other studies, researchers had 90 adult participants play either Grand Theft Auto V or The Sims 3 for at least 30 minutes every day over eight weeks (a control group played no games during the testing period). The adults chosen, who ranged from 18 to 45 years old, reported little to no video game play in the previous six months and were screened for pre-existing psychological problems before the tests. Over 208 separate comparisons (52 tests; violent vs. non-violent and control groups; pre- vs. post- and two-months-later tests), only three subjects showed a statistically significant effect of the violent gameplay at a 95 percent confidence level. Pure chance would predict more than 10 of the 208 comparisons would be significant at that level, leading the researchers to conclude "that there were no detrimental effects of violent video game play."

Scientists Create a Way For People With Amputations To Feel Their Prosthetics ( 42

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Gizmodo: Prosthetic hands have gotten increasingly sophisticated. Many can recreate the complex shape and detail of joints and fingers, while powered prostheses allow for independent, willful movement. But a new study published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine offers a potential glimpse into the future of the technology: Artificial hands that actually feel like a living limb as they move. The researchers recruited people with amputations who had been given surgery that reconfigured certain muscle and sensory nerves surrounding the amputated limb, allowing them to control their prosthesis through intuitive brain signals (thoughts) sent to the repurposed nerves. Across a series of experiments involving three of these patients, the researchers attached devices that generated vibrations along specific muscles near the amputation site. When the device was turned on, these vibrations created an illusionary sense of kinesthesia -- an awareness of conscious self-movement -- in the prosthetic hand as the person performed tasks with it, both in a virtual stimulation and in the real world. The volunteers had amputations that extended just past their elbow as well as their whole arm. Not only did the experiment let them "feel" their hand as they opened and closed it, but the restored intuition allowed them to perform tasks without needing to constantly look at their hand. And coupled with vision, it gave them overall better motor control over their prosthesis.

All Disk Galaxies Rotate Once Every Billion Years ( 89

According to a new study published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers discovered that all disk galaxies rotate about once every billion years, no matter their size or mass. Astronomy Magazine reports: To carry out the study, the researchers measured the radial velocities of neutral hydrogen in the outer disks of a plethora of galaxies -- ranging from small dwarf irregulars to massive spirals. These galaxies differed in both size and rotational velocity by up to a factor of 30. With these radial velocity measurements, the researchers were able to calculate the rotational period of their sample galaxies, which led them to conclude that the outer rims of all disk galaxies take roughly a billion years to complete one rotation. However, the researchers note that further research is required to confirm the clock-like spin rate is a universal trait of disk galaxies and not just a result of selection bias. Based on theoretical models, the researchers also expected to find only sparse populations of young stars and interstellar gas on the outskirts of these galaxies. But instead, they discovered a significant population of much older stars mingling with the young stars and gas.

Air Pollution is Bad For Productivity, Even in Office Jobs ( 41

It seems reasonable that breathing in pollution would affect worker productivity, but only recently has the damage been documented. From a report: In a series of studies that match readings from air monitors with the results of workers who are paid for daily piece work, researchers demonstrated that breathing polluted air impedes the ability of workers to pick berries, pack fruit, or even make phone calls from office cubicles.

The studies, which were collected in the journal Science (pay wall) in January, were conducted over 10 years by team of researchers at Columbia, the University of Southern California, and the University of California, San Diego. The biggest impact of air pollution was measured in farm workers in California's Central Valley, who were paid by the volume of grapes and blueberries they collected. On days that had higher readings of ground-level ozone -- a harmful gas formed when tailpipe emissions mix with sunlight -- worker productivity slumped.

Over the two years they measured the ozone, readings ranged from 10 to 86 parts per billion, and averaged 48 ppb. For every 10 ppb increase in ozone, worker productivity fell 5.5%. For farm workers paid about $9 or $10 an hour, the lost productivity translates into about 45 cents an hour of lower pay, said Matthew Neidell, an economist at Columbia and an author of the studies.


Microsoft Announces Breakthrough In Chinese-To-English Machine Translation ( 72

A team of Microsoft researchers announced on Wednesday they've created the first machine translation system that's capable of translating news articles from Chinese to English with the same accuracy as a person. "The company says it's tested the system repeatedly on a sample of around 2,000 sentences from various online newspapers, comparing the result to a person's translation in the process -- and even hiring outside bilingual language consultants to further verify the machine's accuracy," reports TechCrunch. From the report: The sample set, called newstest2017, was released just last fall at the research conference WMT17. Deep neural networks, a method of training A.I. systems, allowed the researchers to create more fluent and natural-sounding translations that take into account broader context that the prior approaches, called statistical machine translation. Microsoft's researchers also added their own training methods to the system to improve its accuracy -- things they equate to how people go over their own work time and again to make sure it's right.

The researchers said they used methods including dual learning for fact-checking translations; deliberation networks, to repeat translations and refine them; and new techniques like joint training, to iteratively boost English-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-English translation systems; and agreement regularization, which can generate translations by reading sentences both left-to-right and right-to-left. Zhou said the techniques used to achieve the milestone won't be limited to machine translations. The researchers caution the system has not yet been tested on real-time news stories, and there are other challenges that still lie ahead before the technology could be commercialized into Microsoft's products.
You can play around with the new translation system here.

A Brief History of Stephen Hawking ( 48

New Scientist: The most recognisable scientist of our age, Hawking holds an iconic status. [...] He was routinely consulted for oracular pronouncements on everything from time travel and alien life to Middle Eastern politics and nefarious robots. He had an endearing sense of humour and a daredevil attitude -- relatable human traits that, combined with his seemingly superhuman mind, made Hawking eminently marketable.

But his cultural status -- amplified by his disability and the media storm it invoked -- often overshadowed his scientific legacy. That's a shame for the man who discovered what might prove to be the key clue to the theory of everything, advanced our understanding of space and time, helped shape the course of physics for the last four decades and whose insight continues to drive progress in fundamental physics today.
The New York Times: 1970 Dr. Hawking shows that the area of a black hole's event horizon -- a spherical surface marking the point of no return -- can only increase, never decrease, as stuff falls into a black hole or it collides and merges with other black holes.
1971 He suggests that mini black holes much smaller than stars created in the Big Bang could be peppering the universe.
1974 He shocks his colleagues and the world by showing that black holes will leak and explode when quantum effects -- the weird laws that describe subatomic behavior -- are taken into account.
1976 Dr. Hawking says exploding black holes add randomness and unpredictability to the universe, forever erasing information about what might have fallen into a black hole.

Quantum physicists object, saying the universe can't forget, initiating a 40-year argument about the fate of information. Dr. Hawking concedes in 2004, but does not say how information is preserved in a black hole, and the argument continues to this day.
1982 Using a mathematical conceit called imaginary time, Dr. Hawking and James Hartle, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, propose a model of a self-contained universe that has no boundary in space or time, and thus no place or time when the laws of physics break down. [...]
Further reading: Stephen Hawking is still underrated (The Atlantic); Science mourns Stephen Hawking's death (Nature); and How it all began: a colleague reflects on the remarkable life of Stephen Hawking (Smithsonian).

SEC Charges Theranos, CEO Elizabeth Holmes With 'Massive Fraud' ( 128

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Engadget: The SEC has charged Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes and Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani with fraud relating to the startup's fundraising activities. The company, as well as CEO Holmes and former president Balwani are said to have raised more than $700 million from investors through "an elaborate, years-long fraud." This involved making "false statements about the company's technology, business and financial performance." In a statement, the commission said that the company, and its two executives, misled investors about the capability of its blood testing technology. Theranos' big selling point was that its hardware could scan for a number of diseases with just a small drop of blood. Unfortunately, the company was never able to demonstrate that its system worked as well as its creators claimed.

The company and Elizabeth Holmes have already agreed to settle the charges leveled against them by the SEC. Holmes will have to pay a $500,000 fine and return 18.9 million shares in Theranos that she owned, as well as downgrading her super-majority equity into common stock. The CEO is now barred from serving as the officer or director of a public company for 10 years. In addition, if Theranos is liquidated or acquired, Holmes cannot profit from her remaining shareholding unless $750 million is handed back to defrauded investors. Balwani, on the other hand, is facing a federal court case in the Northern District of California where the SEC will litigate its claims against him.
Worth noting: the court still has to approve the deals between Holmes and Theranos, and neither party has admitted any wrongdoing.

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